About 20% of the Arctic Ocean is outside of national jurisdictions, which led experts to call this zone the Arctic Ocean doughnut hole. This particular area has been controversial since no Arctic coastal state has power over this marine space; international law governing international waters apply. With global warming, these waters that were once closed to commercial exploitation and transportation will open up on the medium term.
On November 30, 2017, five Arctic states (Canada, Russia, United States, Denmark and Norway) alongside five states or entities (Japan, China, European Union, Korea and Iceland, all capable of long-distance fishing) agreed to ban commercial fishing in the Arctic doughnut hole for 16 years. The ban follows a precautionary approach, which preach that commercial fishing should not occur before scientific investigations are properly conducted in order to have a clear understanding of fish stocks present in these waters.
We must put this agreement in context. The precautionary approach was first voiced by the five Arctic states mentioned above, in 2015, in what has been called the Oslo Declaration. These states shied away from the term “moratorium,” focusing rather on the imperative of collecting scientific data before allowing fishing in the doughnut hole.
From 2015 to 2017, the 10 states mentioned previously, called the Arctic 5 + 5, convened regularly in order to agree on a process to establish rules for this area. Generally speaking, Arctic states wanted to ban commercial fishing done in these waters while non-Arctic states had for objective to limit the number of obstacles in their way to exploit Arctic fisheries.
The agreement reached on November 30 has been hailed as an historic agreement, highlighting what the New York Times described as “Arctic exceptionalism”. The agreement is indeed historical as it sets aside from commercial exploitation an enormous area (2.8 million square kilometres) for an extended period of time. However, we must realize, although global warming is accelerating, the Arctic doughnut hole would have been outside of commercial exploitation for a substantial amount of time. Arctic exceptionalism is still driven by its exceptional climate.
Additionally, this agreement should not hide us from the work ahead. The next few years will be crucial on that regard. Arctic states needs to continue displaying an inclusive approach towards non-Arctic states. The necessity now is on inter-state collaborating in scientific endeavors to document fish stocks present in an ecosystem we know very little about.
To be honest, Arctic governance has been a model of cooperation for more than two decades, being almost completely isolated from broader geopolitical tensions (think the U.S. – Russia tensions). Scientific and diplomatic cooperation dominated and still dominates discussions at the Arctic Council, with other forums (Arctic Frontiers or Arctic Circle for example) gaining in popularity.
Yet, Arctic states historically had a hard time including non-Arctic states in Arctic governance. Canada and Russia were the two most reluctant states to welcome non-Arctic states as observers at the Arctic Council. The Arctic 5 + 5 process represents on this regard a hopeful sign. Arctic states seemed willing to include non-Arctic states and recognized that they had mutual interests on this particular issue.
This process will require more cooperation between states, not less. The agreement reached on November 30, 2017 is not a culmination; it is only the first step in a long process.
Mathieu Landriault is an associate researcher at the Centre interuniversitaire de recherche sur les relations internationales du Canada et du Québec (CIRRICQ).
Featured image courtesy of Wikimedia